Callum Elson – from footballer to sub-four

A footballer three years ago, a distance runner in December, Callum Elson is now a bonafide miler.

On 12 February 2022 Callum became the 217th Brit to run a sub-four-minute mile, finishing second in 3.59.71 at the BU Valentine meet in Boston, Massachusetts.

Fast forward a month and Elson is the NCAA Div II Indoor Mile champion, winning a national title in just his fifth ever mile outing.

It’s an eye-catching rise, one followed by the thousands of followers of his sub-elite focused Instagram, the Distance Project and enough to earn a supportive text from his football-loving dad:

“Who do you think you are, Roger Bannister?”

Football first

Elson is not without pedigree. His mother, Sara, represented Great Britain at the World Junior Champs over 400m Hurdles, but it was football that captured his early attention.

Callum joined his local team and by seven had been asked to play with Leeds United Academy. Four times a week he would train, one of the smaller players buzzing around in centre-mid, and playing with Leeds until he was 14.

Elson still played to a good level after his departure, regularly representing Leeds Schoolboys, but slowly he realized he might have even greater talent elsewhere. Elson said:

“The main attributes (my teammates) would say. One that I was loud because I always shout on the pitch and lose my head a bit but secondly that I would just run around like crazy in terms of the endurance. For whatever reason, getting around the pitch was my greatest attribute.”

Callum Elson and his two sporting passions.

A different kind of double

Elson decided to try out his local parkrun in Roundhay Park, running low 19 minutes as a 13/14 year-old. Parkruns morphed into local cross-country leagues and before too long his juggling act commenced.

“My mum was driving me over to the cross-country in the morning. I would race a local cross-country come like sixth or seventh being a tiny little kid against big guys that were doing it seriously and then I’d drive straight in the car. Spikes off, football boots on. Arrive literally just before kick-off and they’d say ‘oh you’ve had a warm-up Callum’. Then I’d play football for 60 minutes, 70 minutes and that was just the weekend.”

Callum persuaded his school to enter him as their sole representative in the West Yorkshire Schools Cross Country, where he did enough to earn a vest and become a regular at the English Schools. 142nd in 2013, 184th the next, 152nd in his first senior boys.

Callum Elson finishing second in a BMC A 3000 in Leeds in May 2021

Schoolboy success

His years would look the same, play football throughout winter and spring, then run in the off-season.

2017 came around and Callum made a pretty startling breakthrough, one that probably makes the subsequent ones easier to fathom.

“How the age groups worked, when I was the younger age group Emile Cairess was always the one above me so he would destroy everyone. When you’d go to English Schools you’d think, hopefully Emile can come in the top ten and we’ll just fill the numbers in the 150th or whatever.

But for some reason that year (2017) I’d actually won the County’s and I’d thought I’d won the county’s because not many people had turned up.”

National breakthrough

He’d quickly find out why he had won the West Yorkshire title. In Norwich at English Schools he’d start front of the pen and finish 16th.

“You look at the people in front of me and it was Tom Mortimer, George Mills, Angus McMillan, like they’re all within one or two places of me. They’re all now some of the best runners in GB. Some of them running professionally. So whether that was a mix of hitting puberty, being stronger, whether it was actually cumulative as you’ve being doing some training. I just ran really well and thought that’s decent.”

Decent indeed, but not good enough for Callum to leave football behind altogether.

“It probably shocked other people more than me. Kevin Hussey (Ethan Hussey’s dad) was the team manager for us and I think they were like bloody hell that is high.  Butnot good enough for me to start pursuing running and go to Leeds City. Arguably the best club in the country which is right on my doorstep.

I would just start training in the summer, go off play football. Go to uni, play football for three years. So yeah it was impressive.

If I could go back and say to myself today, bloody hell you could be on to something here I probably would but that’s not how it works out.”

Callum Elson competing for AIC in the Cross

Chasing the team atmosphere

Elson went to Durham University, initially trying to focus more on athletics but the buzz of team football slowly drew him back to the sport:

“I’m really big on the camaraderie and the team side of football I really like. That’s what I try and have here (in America) with the college team. Track and field is such an introverted sport sometimes and you get such dedicated people that you don’t always have that team element. I think that’s why so many people are attracted to America because it seems like in the NCAA you have that team atmosphere.”

That’s what I’m trying to always put on people here. It’s like come on, lighten up. Let’s arrive 10 mins early, have a bit of banter as we put on our spikes. Let’s not do 10 x k and leave.”

AIC at the NCAA Div 2 East Regionals

An individual sport?

Probably because I wasn’t part of an athletics club when I was younger that was probably why I had that view that running had always been an individual thing that I would do.

Running does have that team side to it. Thinking back, if I’d gone to Leeds City, people like Emile that have gone on to amazing things. Josh Dickinson, they’re all training in that environment now.

You only have to look at their social media for two minutes to see the camaraderie they have when they’re all training together. It’s good that people can see that through Sweat Elite and different things now.

You see an insight into what running’s actually like. It isn’t as simple as you just turn up to a track and do your thing. Whether it’s in hindsight or I’m just slightly a different personality now, I really see the team element of it.”

Callum Elson and his AIC Team celebrating a conference title.

Moving to AIC

While chasing that team atmosphere at university, staying in touch with athletics over the off-season did have its benefits.

It was Callum’s outings over 5k and 10k that drew the attention of the then American International College coach Lee Mayo:

“At this point (2019) I’m probably doing four or five months where I’m focusing on running. I’m trying to do some 5ks, 10ks. At this point I’m getting pretty decent times in the grand scheme of things. I got down to 15.12.

Those times for Division 2 NCAA are still pretty decent.

Leo Mayo reached out to me and said are you interested at all in American college? Have you thought about it? And me being me, graduating from Durham I either had chances to continue for interviews for graduate schemes and head down to London for a job or have the opportunity to come out to America.

He was like look if you come here in this environment I think you can get down to a level where you can be good enough for us if that makes sense. You’re going to be competitive at the conference level. You’re going to score some points which is what they want.

I don’t think they could have envisaged that I would have gone on to run the times that I have and really pushed on in that sense. That’s the same as everyone in our team. No-one came over as someone that was identified as winning a national title but they’ve stumbled across some hidden gems if you will. Guys that didn’t really have the potential to go to top D1 schools but have come here.

 and now we’ve got a guy who runs 1.48, we’ve got me 3.59, we’ve got a 13.40 5k guy.”

The journey continues

Callum’s progress may seem explosive but the fault lines were already there. A 14.07 5k man, sub 4 miler with a national title to his name, Callum is an inspiration for all those sub-elite athletes hoping to take the next step.

It’s a journey so far built on hard work, discipline and being a student of the sport. To watch it continue, with international vests the ambition, follow the Distance Project for regular updates.  

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Featured image from Callum Elson, the Distance Project.

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